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Tree species suitable for tree-ring dating

We are specialists in dating oak from the regions of England and NW France, although oak from other regions may also be dated. In England, Oak (Quercus. spp) has the greatest potential for dating although other tree species: Ash (Faxinus excelsior), Beech (Fagus sylvatica), Elm (Ulmus. spp), Pine (Pinus. spp), and Yew (Taxus baccata) may to a lesser extent be dated through tree-ring analysis.

Identification of Wood Species

As previously stated, oak has the greatest potential for dating in England, which fortunately coincides with the fact that in the past it was the most commonly used wood. Identifying the different tree species is more difficult than when they are not living trees. Oak is also relatively easy wood to identify, but difficulties with other species may occur.

Oak Elm Ash Beech Pine Yew

Oak

Elm

Ash

Beech

Pine

Yew

Colour alone is a poor guide to identifying a wood species as staining has long been used to make one type of wood look like another. Surfaces coated with either varnish or wax can often fill the pores as well as change the colour of the wood and make identification difficult.

A simple reference guide for the identification of tree species from the wood alone follows. The guide is purely intended to help you identify the various species of wood which commonly are found in domestic and architectural use in Britain. Please note that you do not have to identify any wood to a species before you can send it for dating, the identification process will be completed by Tree-Ring Services.

Growth rings in softwoods are often clearly visible because each one is composed of both less dense (usually lighter coloured) earlywood formed in spring/early summer; and denser (darker), latewood formed in late-summer/autumn. Sapwood contains the tubes that carry water up through the tree. On an end-grain or cross-section these tubes appear as holes which are referred to as pores. In softwoods (conifers) pores are very small and hard to see, whereas in hardwoods (i.e. broad leaved trees) they are usually readily visible.

The 6 main species for dating and their identifying characteristics

Oak Oak:  Large pores, easily seen at normal reading distance, are noticeably concentrated in the earlywood. Large prominent rays (some finer between). Many pores between large rays and finer rays between pores. Smaller pores of late wood may form a radial "flames" pattern.
Elm Elm:  Large pores with an abrupt change between earlywood and latewood, and wavy parallel lines of medium pores in the latewood. Fine and medium rays, (just visible to the naked eye when the wood is wet). One or two pores between rays. Wood dull yellow, brown or pink, and coarse grained.
Ash Ash:  Large to medium pores, oval in shape. Earlywood gradually merges to latewood. Pores occur singularly or in radial chains especially in latewood (2-5 in a chain). Fine rays with one or two pores between rays.
Beech Beech:  Pores are small to medium and may not be visible to the naked eye. Pores gradually decrease in size and number outward within each ring. Mixture of fine (hard to see) and large rays with more than six pores between large rays. Wood white or pale yellow with distinctive red-brown flecks on the longitudinal face (i.e., not on the end-grain).
  Pine:  Pores normally visible with a hand-lens. Rings distinct with an abrupt transition between the dark latewood and pale earlywood. Soft wood, does not resist fingernail pressure. Colour:- White, yellow or red-brown.
  Yew:  Pores not visible. Prominent rings defined by dark latewood. Hard wood, resists fingernail pressure. Colour:- red/brown (often yellow near bark).

The illustrations show the microscopic structure of the woods. Rays radiate out from the centre of the tree and these may be narrow or wide depending of the tree species. The number of pores sandwiched between the rays, (counting the number of pores encountered along any line at right-angles to the rays), varies between tree species. Pores may also be singular (discrete from each other) as seen in oak or joined into short radial chains (where a number of pores are closely pressed together in a line approximately parallel to the rays) as can be seen in ash.

If difficulties occur in species identification there are usually books available in your local Library which can help in the identification of wood through various features. Please note that even in a single species such as oak, the pores in the earlywood can vary considerably in general number, size and distribution, as can the average ring-widths. Pine and spruce may be confused, though spruce shows a gradual transition between latewood and earlywood, also pine may have a resinous smell that spruce does not.

Commercial timbers (Richter and Dallwitz 2000) provide an on-line database for wood anatomy and wood identification containing descriptions. They also make available an interactive identification system for hardwood taxa common in the international trade that occur in all major forest regions of the world.

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Updated: 28/12/2006


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